I never like to judge a film by its performance at the box office, but I think in the case of American Ultra its much-discussed poor return is somewhat unsurprising, and if you’re feeling uncharitable you may even say it’s deserved. This is the kind of film that I’d hoped to enjoy, starring a few actors I think highly of (Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, John Leguizamo), but I’m afraid for an action comedy there simply aren’t enough laughs in Max Landis’ screenplay to warrant any praise.
The film’s concept feels second rate, as if Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) have thrown the first three Jason Bourne films into a pot, seasoned with a (very small) pinch of Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith, and have subsequently presented us with a particularly weak stock: essence du Damon avec un peu de Rogen, if you’ll allow a weak metaphor to stumble on even further. Eisenberg’s Mike Howell is a convenience clerk stoner who wouldn’t be memorable in the slightest except for the fact that – somewhat implausibly – he’s unaware that he’s also a CIA sleeper agent and trained assassin. His relationship with long-term girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) is sweetly-portrayed but their small town bliss is ruptured when two warring CIA bigwigs (Connie Britton and Topher Grace) go head-to-head over the couple’s welfare; Britton’s character wants to protect her pet project while Grace’s wants to shut it down with brute force. Carnage ensues as hitmen are sent after the half-baked lovers.
The easy chemistry Eisenberg and Stewart shared in Greg Mottola’s excellent (and still underrated) Adventureland is present and correct again here, but both writer and director have failed to test the pair’s comic chops and there’s a lack of imagination at play as CIA goons are dispatched, which means further missed opportunities to provide the audience with a few much-needed chuckles. John Leguizamo tries hard to inject some life into proceedings as a friendly dealer, hampered by the fact he only gets a couple of minutes of screen time, while Bill Pullman is similarly wasted and has an air of ‘just pay me already’ when he shows up for the film’s finale. It’s hard to feel any kind of connection with the characters or the town they live in, and I’m sorry to report that the trailer contains all of American Ultra‘s best moments. My advice is to watch that in order to save yourself a wasted hour and a half and the price of a ticket.
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh.
Written by: Max Landis.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo.
Cinematography: Michael Bonvillain.
Editing: Bill Pankow, Andrew Marcus.
Music: Marcelo Zarvos.
Running Time: 96 minutes.